Truth: The Daughter of Time (Plus Science, Arts, & Humanities)

Truth DOT 2Richard III’s reburial in Leicester, England this week was a ceremony fit for a king. There was a three-day viewing attended by thousands, live television coverage, and a cathedral service presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, with a role for Cardinal Vincent Nichols too. Sherlock Holmes — I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of Richard III — read a poem written for the event by Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate.

Queen Elizabeth II was not there, but she sent a message, calling the reinterment of King Richard III “an event of great national and international significance.”

What’s interesting is that all this pomp and circumstance was for a monarch who has been dead for half a millennium and reviled for just as long.

Many of us know of Richard III from Shakespeare, who portrays the last Plantagenet King as a villain responsible for the disappearance of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, among other crimes. In Richard III (1592), Shakespeare connects the controversial king’s behavior to his physical appearance, describing him as “deform’d,” “unfinish’d,” and as a “bunch-back’d toad.”

Richard has always had his defenders, though.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), a historical mystery novel set in the 20th Century, Inspector Alan Grant decides that Richard III couldn’t have been a murderous criminal because, based on his 15th/16th Century portrait, he simply doesn’t look like one.

While some people (ahem, Shakespeare) choose to emphasize Richard’s alleged “deformities,” Grant focuses on what he perceives to be Richard’s “extraordinary eyes,” which were “set close under… brows slightly drawn in [a] worried, over-conscientious frown.” Grant believes he’s looking at “the face of a great judge, a great administrator,” not “the author of the most revolting crime in history,” the presumed murders of the princes.

As I’ve discussed previously, Grant’s attempt to exonerate Richard through the application of the historical method uncovers “the truth”: that “villainy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” and that history is written by the victors. The Tudors defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and influenced how history remembered him.

We may never know what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, but thanks to a collaboration of scientists, historians, and other scholars we now know much more about the man history has held responsible for their deaths.

In 2012, archaeologists excavated King Richard III’s remains from a parking lot in Leicester. Since that time, researchers have confirmed the ruler’s identity through mitochondrial DNA testing.* They have also discovered that he had roundworms, possessed a spinal curvature that wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the physical description Shakespeare gave him in Richard III, and was probably blue-eyed and blond-haired (at least while a child), contrary to popular perception.

Still, many questions about Richard remain, from his alleged role in his nephews’ disappearances to why his Y chromosome does not match the DNA of others living today who claim Plantagenet and Tudor paternal ancestry. In time, future scientific and historical discoveries may give us the answers.

*Not that everyone agrees that these bones belong to Richard: See Richard III: We’re Burying the Wrong Body; and the rebuttal: We Are Definitely Burying the Right Body, Say Archaeologists.


  1. The pomp and circumstance is almost as intriguing to me than the history behind the whole thing! But, I also love how no matter how much we “dig”, there are just more questions! Perhaps that is what makes it so intriguing. I still need to read “Daughter of Time” though! Great post!

    1. I agree! The “pomp and circumstance” is fascinating. I highly recommend Josephine Tey’s novel. It’s a fun read that ties in nicely with these recent discoveries.

  2. Interesting about Richard’s appearance being more of a judge than criminal! Sadly, I missed the burial – the price of university exams!

    1. It’s been fascinating to re-think our perception of Richard III in light of these discoveries. I highly recommend reading Josephine Tey’s novel (if you haven’t read it already). I hope your exams went well!

  3. Interesting story. I know nothing of the times, but much of what is written to history seems like it was how certain groups decided it happened, rather than what actually happened.

  4. I read Daughter of Time back in the mid 60s and have believed ever since that Richard III was not the murderer of the Princes in the Tower. The only one with a motive for killing them was Henry Tudor who claimed his legitimacy in part because he married the older sister of the Princes. But her right to the throne disappeared at the same time her brothers’ did when a Bill of Attainder was proven that showed they were illegitimate, Edward IV having married a woman before he married the mother of these children. But Shakespeare has been given too much credence when it is clear that he was writing for his Tudor masters.

    1. It’s fascinating stuff. The Daughter of Time has done a lot to rehabilitate Richard III’s reputation. Personally, I think it’s a much better read than Shakespeare’s play!

  5. Indeed a strange episode. There are zillions of bodies buried under Leicester, as elsewhere, and yet they manage to dig up a king. After he was believed to have been chucked in the river.

    That’s the great thing about history – very little of it is proven fact, only accounts handed down the years. You can pretty much deduce your own version 😉

    1. Yes, it’s interesting to see how much of what we know as “history” is really fiction. I thought the discovery of these remains was odd–particularly the role of the woman from the Richard III Society who had a “strange feeling” she was standing on the former king’s grave–but I’m inclined to believe the science confirming his identity.

  6. One of my favorite historical novels when I was growing up was Katherine by Anya Seton. It details how a commoner ended up married to John of Gaunt, a Plantagenet, and was briefly queen of England.

    This sounds fascinating. He had roundworms? 🙂 Apparently death, no matter how long ago it happened, is no longer a keeper of secrets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s